Science that can make you smarter

By Kimberly Clark, Science Tuesday Editor

A device that can control a person’s brain is often the fantasy of many science fiction enthusiasts. However, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Neural Engineering, this fantasy might be closer to reality than ever before.

The paper, which is the collaborative effort of researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the University of Southern California, details a device which can operate from within the brain to sharpen cognitive ability by honing the connections among the brain nerve cells, called neurons.

A similar technology has been studied in rhesus monkeys. To do so, researchers at Wake Forest taught a matching game to five rhesus monkeys. The monkeys were shown a picture of a toy, a person or a mountain range on a large screen. They then had to pick the same picture out of a group pictures that was displayed later on the same screen. For every correct answer, the monkeys received a treat.

After playing the game for two years, the monkeys were choosing the correct picture for easier matches about 75 percent of the time and 40 percent of the time for harder matches.

Researchers then implanted a small probe with two sensors into the monkeys’ brain by  feeding it through the monkeys’ foreheads and into two layers of their cerebral cortex. These layers, known as L-2/3 and L-5, have been proven to communicate with one another during decision-making like the kind the monkeys used while playing their game.

The device picked up the crackling sounds that the monkeys’ neurons made when they played the game and sent the sounds to a computer. Researchers from U.S.C. studied the sounds to find a pattern for when the monkeys made a correct decision.

Once the researchers had pinpointed the pattern for correct choices, they used the device to send it into the monkeys’ brains right as they were choosing an answer. The monkeys who received the correct pattern improved their score by approximately 10 percent.

Then the researchers administered cocaine to the monkeys to impair their cognitive abilities. Unsurprisingly, the monkeys‘ scores fell approximately 20 percent.

While the device in the paper is far from commercial application, the study demonstrates that such a device could be developed in the future. Dr. Sam A. Deadwyler, a researcher at Wake Forest, told the “New York Times” that the technology used in the rhesus monkey study could be condensed into a chip that would be implanted in the brain.

The technology could help people who have lost mental capacity due to brain injuries, dementia or strokes.

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